In this episode
Colleen and Kristy discuss:
- deadly climate impacts that overlap in the summer months
- climate resilience, and the role of climate adaptation and climate mitigation
- the need for a national resilience framework to help people most at risk of losing their homes and communities
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (2:21-11:57)
Interview part 2 (12:44-24:54)
Science in Action: Matt Beyer
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: As a gardener and a beach-walker, summers used to be my favorite season. But if you work with climate scientists long enough, as I have, you might start to notice a feeling of dread creeping in each May.
I dread the emergence of bigger and more destructive wildfires that burn more and more land every year. I dread sweating through endless stretches of 90-plus degree days, which were pretty uncommon when I was a kid growing up in chilly New England. I dread the consequences of drought, here and across the country, and what it does to our food supply. I dread hurricanes, for friends who live in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and other hotspots for storms.
My climate scientist colleagues have come up with the perfect way to put a name on these feelings. As of now, summers at UCS are no longer just summers: they’re the Danger Season. Danger Season refers to these months of hurricanes and higher temperatures that make climate impacts collide and amplify each other.
Summer sounds innocuous, like popsicles and swimming pools and cookouts. But Danger Season captures the risks we all face each year. My goal for summers now is to enjoy the former to the fullest, while preparing for the latter.
So what we do during Danger Season? My colleague Dr. Kristy Dahl, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has some ideas for how to build climate resilience—meaning, relative safety as we experience the impacts we’re already dealing with. She joined me to discuss the difference between climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation, what the Biden administration is doing about climate impacts, and what’s keeping her going, even through Danger Season.
Colleen: Kristy, welcome back to the podcast.
Kristy: It's great to be here, Colleen. Thanks for having me.
Colleen: Yeah, and it seems like we chat right about this time every year, I would say.
Kristy: I think you're right. I think we do. As summer heats up and wildfire season begins, I know I can count on you for a spot on this great podcast.
Colleen: Exactly. Exactly. So, you know, I just learned that you have been studying and working on climate change for close to 25 years. And I feel like now it's a climate crisis and we have so very little time to turn things around. I mean, we need to pull out all the stops and do as much as we can to prevent the most devastating consequences of climate change. And if we can do this, and I really hope we can, there will still be dramatic impacts experienced by people all over the world. So, I wonder if you could describe what is already unfolding and what is going to continue to unfold as the planet warms.
Kristy: Yeah, I think most people in the United States and I think many, many more around the world are already seeing these early effects of climate change starting to unfold. And I think the most obvious way that we're seeing it is in the changes in extreme weather that we're experiencing. So, we now have studies that link the increase in the size of wildfires to human-caused climate change. We know that human-caused climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme, more severe heat waves around the world. We're seeing hurricanes that are intensifying very rapidly before making landfall, which makes them much more destructive, and that trend has been linked to climate change.
These sorts of events often capture our attention in part because they're impacting people's lives so severely, and they really are some early signs and very clear signs of the impacts of climate change on our planet. So, pretty much anywhere you look around the globe, we’re already feeling the effects of about one degree of Celsius that we’ve already warmed our planet, and we’re hoping that we can limit to an additional half degree Celsius of warming from here to avoid these problems becoming even more intense.
Colleen: So, from a scientific perspective, if we stop emitting all global warming emissions today, how long will it take to stabilize the planet?
Kristy: That’s a really interesting question because there’s no one answer. For a long time, climate scientists thought that, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases, heat-trapping gases today that everything would still continue. Warming would still continue for decades. Sea level rise would continue for decades. And now we have a much more nuanced understanding of that. So, what the current understanding is, is that some impacts would stop getting worse very quickly and in particular, rising temperatures and, increasingly frequent extreme heat. It's something that scientists are now saying we could see that improve within a decade or two of when we end our emissions, which is great.
Other climate impacts like sea-level rise unfortunately will continue for centuries because it just takes the oceans a lot longer to respond to any abrupt changes that we might be able to make in our emissions. So, it's really a combination of there being some impacts that would basically be stopped almost dead in their tracks, some that would play out over a much longer time, and then unfortunately there are some things that we simply can't recover from. And one obvious one there is species extinctions. So, if a species has gone extinct, whether or not we stop emitting greenhouse gases today or in 100 years, we're not gonna get that species back. So, some of those things are irreversible.
Colleen: I've been hearing more and more about climate resilience. Can you define for our listeners?
Kristy: Sure. So, climate resilience is the capacity of our social systems, our economic systems, our communities to cope with a hazardous event or a worsening trend or disturbance in such a way that they can respond to those disturbances and reorganize in ways that maintain our systems' essential functions. Hopefully, while also maintaining a capacity for learning and transformation. That's a lot of big words, but the basic idea of climate resilience is that we need to be able to weather the sorts of changes in our climate that we are already experiencing. And we need to be able to do that in ways that allow communities to thrive and grow sometimes in ways that they haven't been able to thrive and grow under our current political system.
Colleen: Andwhat role does climate adaptation and mitigation play in becoming more climate resilient?
Kristy: So, both adaptation and mitigation have really important roles to play in determining how resilient we are to climate change. To back up for a second, climate adaptation is the process of adjusting to actual changes in our climate or expected changes in our climate in such ways that we're able to avoid harms. So, one clear example of a climate adaptation would be, if you look at homes along the beach in North Carolina, for example, many of them are upon stilts because it's an area that's always experienced hurricanes. They know that there's going to be flooding along the coasts periodically, and so people have raised their homes. That's an adaptation measure.
Mitigation is the process of reducing the amount and the speed of future climate change by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases. So, an example of that might be, switching our energy use to renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuel sources. That's a mitigation measure. And when you think about climate resilience, being able to weather these storms, both metaphorical and actual storms, the amount of climate change that we have to be resilient to is determined by how well we mitigate future climate change, right. So, are we trying to cope with a climate that's more like today or, a much hotter, much more severe weather-prone climate?
Adaptation is what allows us to cope with the changes that we can't mitigate against, those changes that we know are coming down the line, and frankly, the conditions we're already experiencing today. So you can think of resilience as this kind of middle zone that could be as narrow or as wide as you imagine but on one end, we're trying to make ourselves more resilient by not changing our climate so much, and on the other end, we're trying to adapt to the climate we have so that we are also more resilient. So, adaptation and mitigation really work hand in hand in defining and determining how resilient we are to the climate crisis.
Colleen: So, do you worry that focusing on adaptation will divert attention away from dealing with the core issue of reducing emissions?
Kristy: So right now, we need to be walking and chewing gum at the same time when it comes to dealing with climate change. If we were having this conversation 15 years ago, I would have said, "Yes, we need to be just focusing on the mitigation piece." because the more we mitigate, the less we're going to have to adapt. But in those intervening 15 years, emissions have continued to increase. We're seeing increasingly frequent extreme weather. We're seeing the toll of that extreme weather increasing. And so, we now recognize that we're in a place that we already have to adapt our systems. when we see the widespread power outages and water outages in the wake of a hurricane, for example, that's telling us that the systems we currently have in place aren't sufficient for the climate we already have.
And we anticipate that that is going to become even more difficult in the future. So, we really do need to be operating now on both fronts because we know that we can...we still do have time to limit the extent of future climate change and it's critical that we do. We also have these critical immediate adaptation needs just simply to be keeping people safe from the conditions we're already living with.
Colleen: So, it sounds like we just need to be much more flexible in our approach to be able to...I don't know. I guess it's, as you said, like, walking and chewing gum. You have to be able to do both.
Kristy: Sure. I think there's an element of flexibility that we need but it's also an element of resolve and commitment that we really desperately need on both the adaptation front and the mitigation front. And while we see, you know, science, for example, the Biden administration is very committed to both of these fronts, we're still seeing a lot of gridlock in actually trying to make progress on either.
Colleen: Right. So, from a climate justice point of view, do you have any examples where we're getting it right?
Kristy: You know, I think there are some encouraging signs here. The Biden administration has, from the very beginning, stated a commitment to environmental justice. They have formed a number of different committees and organizations at the White House level to be helping to inform policy and to promote things like the Justice40 pledge, which is a pledge that states that for at least 40% of federal money that goes to building climate resilience and adaptation goes to environmental justice communities.
So, there are a lot of really encouraging signs in that space. It is a really challenging space and these are really thorny and longstanding issues. So, it's not going to be a beautiful and perfectly defined path that we walk down and there will be missteps. It will be clumsy at times. And yet, we're seeing a level of commitment that we haven't seen to date from any other administration to addressing these kinds of issues. Colleen: Kristy, for families that are losing their homes and even their entire communities, what options do they have?
Kristy: Yeah, and I think this is where we are in really desperate need of a national resilience framework and strategy because increasingly, people are going to be in these situations where they lose a home. They can't go back. And how do we as a nation help them through that, right? What sorts of resources are out there already? What sorts of resources need to be put into place, not just for individuals, but for communities that are seeing people having to leave the community, and how do we keep our communities intact? And these are really extremely challenging issues that get into much more than the physical sciences that, you know, I check in every day but really these, you know, social science issues of how we stay connected to community, what makes for a resilient community.
And without some kind of national unifying framework for helping people through these really difficult decisions they're going to be facing in the coming decades, you're really leaving people out high and dry in trying to figure it out on their own. And we know even when there are federal programs in place, they're not always having the intended effects. So, I'm thinking, for example, of people who accepted buyouts from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, after hurricane Sandy which was in 2012 and affected the New York City region very heavily.
So, a number of people in Staten Island were offered buyouts because their homes were damaged by the storm, and they relocated. And long-term studies that have followed those who took buyouts as well as those who did not and the communities that were adjacent tocommunities where buyouts were prevalent, have found that people who accepted the buyouts are not necessarily better off in terms of wellbeing and sometimes even in terms of their exposure to coastal flooding risks just like the one they were trying to flee.
So, we have these programs but aren't necessarily optimizing them in ways that promote the long-term health of people who are taking advantage of them. So, we need to be taking a really hard look at how we're supporting people through difficult decisions so that even if they can't "bounce back" to where they are or go back to their original lot that they lived on, they're still supported as full human beings who can create successful community and successful life for themselves in a new place.
Colleen: SKristy, I've heard you and your colleagues talk about "danger season." I kinda have that in air quotes. Can you explain what that is?
Kristy: Sure. So, we have started thinking of summer in the United States as danger season because climate change has really pushed the weather that we experience in the summer to new extremes. So, because of climate change, our heat waves are longer and stronger and more frequent, and therefore have the potential to be more deadly. Climate change has made our hurricanes be more likely to reach the strongest categories. The storm surge from those hurricanes is more extensive because of climate change. And then when we look at something like wildfires, there's a link between human-caused climate change and the amount of our land that's burning in fires every year.
So, in so many ways, we've seen climate change push summer in all of the usual things that we would've experienced in the summer, you know, the occasional heat wave, the regular low-intensity wildfires in California, the hurricanes that are a natural part of our climate system to really new and dangerous extremes. So, this summer, we're trying to get that message across, that summer has become a danger season in the United States. And the sooner we can name it and recognize it as such, the better off we're going to be in terms of making sure we're not pummeled by it year after year.
Colleen: So, in addition to what you can do with your vote, you know, the climate crisis obviously is overwhelming, and I'm often asked by listeners, "You know, what can we do so, I just figure I'm gonna ask you, Kristy. What advice do you have for individuals like me that, you know...what can we do?
Kristy: Yeah. So, it is really hard in the face of these enormous problems to figure out what we can do to feel effective and to actually be effective. And there's a whole big range of things that people can do. I think first and foremost, if it's an issue that you care about, join up with other people. Chances are you live in a place that has some sort of environmental awareness or climate awareness group that you can connect to that by bringing your voice to, you can actually amplify the voice that you have.
So that's one. One of the biggest things people can do is to vote. We have midterm elections coming up. We desperately need to break out of the gridlock we are in at the federal level in terms of investing in climate action. And so use your vote and make sure that you are thinking about climate change when you decide how to vote.
Because those are two not very specific things, though, you know, as someone who tries to reduce my own personal carbon footprint, there are just so many different things that you can do. And while, yes, sometimes each of them feels like a tiny, even fraction of a droplet in this giant bucket, for me personally, making decisions that are consistent with the values I hold and with the world I want to see helps me to feel better about it.So, there are loan programs that allow you to put solar panels on your home basically at no cost.
There are electric vehicles on the market and prices are coming down in good ways. And while it's really hard to buy a car right now because of the supply chain crisis, you can get yourself on a waiting list. If you're thinking about buying a new car, buy the most fuel-efficient car that you can.
So, I've been trying to root out plastic from our kitchen and our cleaning supplies, and it's a silly...it's a small thing. It's a little bit of a mission that my family and I are on. But I have a friend who heard about it and is interested in doing the same. So, you know, then it spreads to that friend and she can spread it to another person. And the more we socialize the notion that these are things that we want to be doing and ought to be doing, the better off we'll be.
Colleen: Well, Kristy, I have a final question for you. From a climate scientist perspective, what are some of the signposts that you look for to gauge if we're making progress? I'm often looking to the president and Congress and that feels very unsatisfying and not always hopeful. But I'm wondering what you look to as a scientist.
Kristy: Sure. So, I too look to our federal lawmakers for those signs of progress. And while I see progress in terms of the commitment with the Biden administration to addressing climate change, it is frustrating to see the inaction in Congress. So, I do try to look at some smaller pieces. So, where I live in California, there is a bill on the table that would increase protections for outdoor workers for wildfire smoke and extreme heat. And I'm watching that because while that is, you know, arguably a small bit of climate adaptation legislation, that is what it is and could have a meaningful impact on millions of people's lives in the state of California, particularly given that things like heat-related deaths in the workplace are almost entirely preventable.
So, I see encouraging signs there. Washington and Oregon just recently finalized heat and wildfire smoke-related protections for outdoor workers. And in Oregon, those are kinda the first on the books. There are only a few states in the nation that have those. So, to see that number growing is really encouraging. I also see in the most recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, there's a much greater focus on the impacts of climate change as they're playing out in disadvantaged communities. There's a much greater recognition than there was even just five or six years ago of how much more disproportionally affected communities of color and lower-income communities in the U.S. and around the world are by climate-related disasters.
So, I'm really encouraged that that very long overdue just basic acknowledgment is now becoming kind of part of this standard communications from this international assessment group about how we need to approach the climate crisis. I also am encouraged by what I'm seeing in terms of equity and justice within the framing of the Biden administration's language on how they plan to address the climate change. You know, that's certainly not something that we have heard so prominently from our elected officials in the past. So, I do think that we are breaking through on some level, both in terms of how scientists see this issue and how our policymakers see this issue. And while it's not necessarily this sweeping transformative change that so many of us are so desperate for, you know, we do see in a lot of different avenues there's progress.
Colleen: Well Kristy, thanks so much for joining me. I'm glad we could end on a bit of a hopeful note and I think we do just have to keep looking for the small wins.
Kristy: Absolutely. One of my colleagues always said, "When it comes to solving the climate crisis, there's no silver bullet. It's silver buckshot." And I always keep that in mind just as I think about how many thousands of changes we need to see. And when you see a state pass a very common-sense law like Oregon just did to protect its outdoor workers from climate extremes, that's a tiny piece of that buckshot, right. And we need all of it.
Colleen: Right. Well, great. Well, thank you so much.
Kristy: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me again, Colleen. It's always a pleasure.